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    Art Terms: Etymologies of Interest

    I haven't come across anything like this yet, so I figured it was time to start putting my preoccupation with philology to good use. Maybe get a sticky going, or a few links.

    Art Terms: Etymologies of Interest

    Understanding the history of a word helps us to use it in a more nuanced and technical way. Its also just interesting to see how ideas and terms can undergo subtle changes over time. To that end, I thought I'd start collecting some relevant etymologies and post them here for others to check out. Maybe it will also help those for whom English is a second language.

    For a contemporary glossary of 'specific' visual arts terms, you'll probably find what you're looking for at a site more like this: What follows here is instead a more general exploration of word histories. Feel free to contribute any others you come across, and I'll edit them into the main listing. Most of these are taken from the online etymology resource at:, (which can be a bit unweildy at times), but I'll update them with some more comprehensive definitions once I have a little free time to transcribe the stuff on the bookshelf.

    Part 1

    1387, from L. abstractus "drawn away," pp. of abstrahere, from ab(s)- "away" + trahere "draw" (see tract). Meaning "withdrawn or separated from material objects or practical matters" is from 1557; specifically in ref. to the arts, it dates from 1915. Abstract expressionism from 1952

    1798, from German ästhetisch or French esthétique, both from Greek aisthetikos "sensitive," from aisthanesthai "to perceive, to feel," from Proto Indo European *awis-dh-yo-, from base *au- "to perceive." Popularized in English by translation of Immanuel Kant, and used originally in the classically correct sense "the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception." Kant had tried to correct the term after Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean "criticism of taste" (1750s), but Baumgarten's sense attained popularity in English. c.1830s (despite scholarly resistance) and removed the word from any philosophical base. Walter Pater used it (1868 ) to describe the late 19c. movement that advocated "art for art's sake," which further blurred the sense. The noun Aesthete is first recorded 1881.

    c.1225, "skill as a result of learning or practice," from O.Fr. art, from Latin artem, (nom. ars) "art, skill, craft," from Proto Indo-European (PIE) *ar-ti- (cf. Sanskrit. rtih "manner, mode;" Greek arti "just," artios "complete;" Armenian arnam "make," German art "manner, mode"), from base *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm (1)). In Middle English usually with sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- and the quadrivium --arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from 1386. Sense of "cunning and trickery" first attested c.1600. Meaning "skill in creative arts" is first recorded 1620; esp. of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1668. Broader sense of the word remains in artless (1589). As an adj. meaning "produced with conscious artistry" (as opposed to popular or folk) it is attested from 1890, possibly from infl. of Ger. kunstlied "art song" (cf. art film, 1960; art rock, c.1970). Fine arts, "those which appeal to the mind and the imagination" first recorded 1767. Art brut "art done by prisoners, lunatics, etc.," is 1955, from Fr., lit. "raw art." Artsy "pretentiously artistic" is from 1902.

    1581, "one who cultivates one of the fine arts," from M. French artiste, from Italian artista, from Medieval Latin artista, from Latin ars (see art). Originally used especially of the arts presided over by the Muses (history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, astronomy), but also used 17c. for "one skilled in any art or craft" (including professors, surgeons, craftsmen, cooks). Now especially of "one who practices the arts of design or visual arts" (a sense first attested 1747). Artistic first recorded 1753; artistry 1868. Fr. artiste, a reborrowing of artist after the sense of artist had become limited toward the visual arts and especially painting

    1840, from Fr., from O.Fr. astelier "workshop," from astele "small plank, a shaving, splinter," probably from L.L. hastella "a thin stick," dim. of hasta "spear, shaft."

    c.1275, from Anglo-Norm. beute, from Old French bealte, earlier beltet, from Vulgar Latin bellitatem "state of being handsome," from Latin bellus "fine, beautiful," in classical L. used especially of women and children, or ironically or insultingly of men. Famously defined by Stendhal as la promesse de bonheur "the promise of happiness." Replaced Old English wlite.

    Canvas (n)
    1260, from Anglo-Fr. canevaz, from O.Fr. canevas, from V.L. *cannapaceus "made of hemp," from L. cannabis, from Gk. kannabis "hemp," a Scythian or Thracian word.

    1556, from M.Latin conceptum "draft, abstract," in Latin "(a thing) conceived," from pp. of concipere "to take in" (see conceive). In some 16c. cases a refashioning of conceit (perhaps to avoid negative connotations); conception in the womb sense was c.1300

    c.1225, from O.Fr. colur, from L. color (acc. colorem) "color, hue," from Old L. colos, orig. "a covering" (akin to celare "to hide, conceal"), from PIE base *kel- "to cover, conceal" (see cell). O.E. words for "color" were hiw, bleo. The verb is from c.1300, earliest use is figurative. Colorful "interesting" is from 1889.

    O.E. cræft "power, strength, might," from P.Gmc. *krab-/*kraf-. Sense shifted to "skill, art" (via a notion of "mental power"), which led to the n. meaning of "trade." Use for "small boat" is first recorded 1671, probably from some nautical sense of "vessels of small craft," referring either to the trade they did or the seamanship they required.

    c.1386, from L. creatus, pp. of creare "to make, produce," related to crescere "arise, grow" (see crescent). Creator for "Supreme Being" (c.1300) drove out native scieppend, from verb scieppan (see shape). Creative is from 1678, originally literal; of the arts, meaning "imaginative," from 1816, first attested in Wordsworth. Creative writing is from 1907. The native word for creation in the Biblical sense was O.E. frum-sceaft.

    O.E. dragan "to drag, to draw" (class VI strong verb; past tense drog, pp. dragen), from P.Gmc. *draganan "carry," from PIE base *dhragh- (see drag). Sense of "make a line or figure" (by "drawing" a pencil across paper) is c.1200. Meaning "pull out a weapon" is c.1200. Colloquial n. sense of "anything that can draw a crowd" is from 1881 (the verb in this sense is 1586).

    1548, from L. designare "mark out, devise," from de- "out" + signare "to mark," from signum "a mark, sign." Originally in Eng. with the meaning now attached to designate (1646, from L. designatus, pp. of designare); many modern uses of design are metaphoric extensions.

    c.1500, spelling variant of draught (q.v.) to reflect change in pronunciation. Meaning "rough copy of a writing" (something "drawn") is attested from 14c.; that of "preliminary sketch from which a final copy is made" is from 1528. The meaning "to draw off a group for special duty" is from 1703, in U.S. especially of military service

    c.1205, from O.E. *dreaht, *[i]dræht[i], related to dragan "to draw, drag" (see drag). Oldest sense besides that of "pulling" is of "drinking;" meaning "current of air" ("drawn" through an opening) is 18c. It retains the functions that did not branch off with draft.

    Fine (adj)
    c.1300, from O.Fr. fin "perfected, of highest quality," from L. finis "end, limit," hence "acme, peak, height," as in finis boni "the highest good." In Fr., the main meaning remains "delicate, intricately skillful;" in Eng. since c.1440 fine is also a general expression of admiration or approval, the equiv. of Fr. beau (cf. fine arts, 1767, translating Fr. beaux-arts). Finery "gaudy decoration" is first attested 1680. Fine print "qualifications and limitations of a deal" first recorded 1960. Fine-tune (v.) is 1969, a back-formation from fine-tuning (1924), originally in reference to radio receivers.

    c.1225, from O.Fr. forme, from L. forma "form, mold, shape, case," origin unknown. One theory holds that it is from Gk. morphe "form, beauty, outward appearance" (see morphine) via Etruscan. Sense of "behavior" is first recorded c.1386. The verb is attested from 1297.

    1500, from M.Fr. galerie "a long portico," from M.L. galeria, of uncertain origin, perhaps alteration of galilea "church porch," which is probably from L. Galilaea "Galilee," the northernmost region of Palestine; church porches sometimes were so called from being at the far end of the church. Sense of "building to house art" first recorded 1591

    1610, "traced" (implied in graphical), from L. graphicus "picturesque," from Gk. graphikos "of or for writing, belonging to drawing, picturesque," from graphe "writing, drawing," from graphein "write," originally "to scratch" on clay tablets with a stylus. Meaning "of or pertaining to drawing" is from 1756; that of "vivid" is from 1669, on the notion of words that produce the effect of a picture.

    1561, originally a noun, from M.Fr. crotesque, from It. grottesco, lit. "of a cave," from grotta (see grotto). Used first of paintings found on the walls of basements of Roman ruins, characterized by fanciful or odd representations of animal or human forms (It. pittura grottesca). Originally "fanciful, fantastic," later "bizarre." Then sense became pejorative after mid-18c.

    1298, "small horse, pony," later "mock horse used in the morris dance," and c.1550 "child's toy riding horse," which led to a transferred sense of "favorite pastime or avocation," first recorded 1676. The connecting notion being "activity that doesn't go anywhere." Probably originally a proper name for a horse (cf. dobbin), a dim. of Robert or Robin.

    c.1375, "a spiritual illumination," from O.Fr. illustration, from L. illustrationem (nom. illustratio) "vivid representation" (in writing), lit. "an enlightening," from illustrare "light up, embellish, distinguish," from in- "in" + lustrare "make bright, illuminate." Mental sense of "act of making clear in the mind" is from 1581. Meaning "an illustrative picture" is from 1816. Illustrate "educate by means of examples," first recorded 1612. Sense of "provide pictures to explain or decorate" is 1638.

    c.1225, "artificial representation that looks like a person or thing," from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) "copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance," from stem of imitari "to copy" (see imitate). Meaning "reflection in a mirror" is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng.
    Last edited by Jasonwclark; July 25th, 2009 at 02:03 PM.

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